A grain of salt

The distillation of family

By Ammi Midstokke
Reader Columnist

When my granny died, I was half a world away in India. I had seen her just days before at her home in Oregon, where she pressed a copy of All Creatures Great and Small into my hands. I took her to dinner at The Olive Garden. A child of the Great Depression, she ordered enough food to eat for a week and we left with several to-go boxes. It was her last meal, and as far as last meals go, I suppose that fettuccini alfredo is a fine choice.

My granny — who never let me call her grandma — was the matriarch of my family. She had raised five children, or at least tried. Her two daughters passed away young (seizure, cancer) and she was left with three strapping boys. My father was the youngest. I grew up knowing my uncles at Christmas, and hearing of the occasional milestones in my cousins’ lives. They had teen pregnancies or got married or moved east. When Granny died, I heard even less.

I have spent a decade mourning her loss. She represented all things good. Hard work, integrity, patience, stoicism, truth, doing the right thing. Her cooking was awful, but largely a byproduct of a heart attack in the ’80s that left her kitchen devoid of cholesterol. Still, my fondest memories are of her walking through her kitchen with her flannel shirt and a dish towel draped over her shoulder, threatening to bake cookies.

So when my motherless cousin, Tammy, called me this summer as her partner faded into the Great Beyond, I packed up my own daughter and flew to Tennessee. It was the right thing to do. 

Ammi Midstokke.

My Uncle Tom came to do his best to care for his daughter as she convalesced from her dying partner (alcohol). She had a 6-week-old baby on her hip. Uncle Tom knew what she was going through. Tammy’s mother had died when Tammy was just 3 (also alcohol).

When Tom’s tears came, they were for the long journey ahead, a lifetime of wondering why and the struggles of self-worth that remain in the heart long after the mind knows better. I stood in the air-conditioned trailer with him, Tennessee heat sweltering outside, aching with empathy for the knowledge he held. And for the first time in my life, I knew my uncle.

I had seen him at weddings, on summer vacations, at Granny’s house unwrapping Christmas presents. He was the goofball with about as much depth as a teaspoon. I was pretty sure he had never had an emotion complex enough to cause tears. Then I remembered I had only seen Granny cry once, when she told me that her daughter had died on Mother’s Day and that she’d just lost her favorite photo of her. 

And in that moment, I saw my absent granny in his eyes and in his strength and I realized she had never and could never really leave us. We were just part of her distillation process. 

Some weeks later, my phone rang and my Uncle Ted’s number appeared. In my 40 years on this planet, he has never called me. Assuming there was another death, I answered the call with an intrepid “hello.” 

He called to ask for a piece he’d heard I’d written and to have me remind his brothers of their irresponsible lifestyles. He said “mature” with a hard “t” like Granny. In fact, he spoke just like her — from the intonation of words to the lecture on adult obligations. He even had the same uncompromising values about work ethic and retirement. Then I remembered years earlier when I’d visited him and he had walked around the kitchen with a dish towel on his shoulder. Also, a canned ham had been made for dinner.

His son came to visit this fall. I hadn’t seen him for more than 25 years. He had just been a thick kid in a tracksuit back then. Now he was an ink-covered father of a charming toddler. When she laughed, her eyes twinkled with mischief, like Granny’s in her childhood photos or when she talked about getting pulled over by the cops for speeding, again. 

My family has all the glorious dysfunction and raw love of any generation of humans fated together by DNA and common history. We have trauma and addiction and abuse, more than one mental health disorder, a few real diamonds (Granny being the crown jewel) and the Norwegian heritage to be pretty good at cards. Those of us who remain connected do so out of genuine interest and appreciation — or what my dad wisely calls “being relevant,” which as far as I can tell, is of far more significance than “being related.”

In a year when we have lost so much, when our ways to nurture and celebrate the bonds we have with each other have been threatened and challenged, even severed, I have found myself overwhelmed with the blessings of an accidental refinement process. I have discovered I’m actually relevant to some fantastic people, as they are to me. 

I’ve been given the opportunity to know them for who they are, not just their place in our family tree. While we may not be sitting in Granny’s living room with a camcorder running as we open thrift store presents and pretend the bran muffins are delicious, I know we’re all just beginning to unwrap a much grander gift. Each other.

Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at [email protected]

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